Don Imus’s insulting characterisation of the Rutgers University women’s basketball team has set off a firestorm of moralising. The acolytes of our chattering class have been falling over themselves to get to microphones and instruct us. Everyone from those Twin Towers of the Ethical Life, the Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, to former Imus cheerleaders, such as Senator Chris Dodd and New York Times’s Frank Rich, have been sprinting for the moral high ground from which to lecture us. And it hasn’t stopped there. Whether in bars or book clubs, the regular conversational topics have been temporarily shelved to debate le affaire Imus.
Exercising the old moral muscles is undoubtedly good for us, both individually and collectively. However, this whole event has an "out there" quality. In the confessional spirit of the moment, I admit that I have taken guilty pleasure in many of the Imus show’s over-the-line jabs and stabs at certain public figures. Likewise, I’ve done some mental tongue-clucking when a personal favourite is savagely ridiculed. Having heard all this breathy moralising, however, like most people, I’m ready to embrace a kinder, gentler airwaves environment. Still, however, all this is far away from us as we make our daily rounds through life’s public spaces.
Paralleling this recent decline in broadcast speech and behaviour, there has been a sharp decline in our close-to-home life, our regular routines of shopping for groceries, going to movies and driving our streets. On buses and trains, coming out of the mouths of babes we hear barracks language of drill-sergeant quality. Inches from our ears, young professionals bellow their intimate conversations into their cell phones. Waiting at a corner to cross the street, even the cell phone conversations to the right and left are obliterated by the booming, pulsing blast of rock music coming from a passing car. What has happened? Why are we being so assaulted?
Some years ago my family and I lived in Portugal and I regularly took a train into the University of Lisbon to teach. One day the crowded train stopped as usual at a local station and a group of about 15 high school students clambered aboard. Characteristic of young Portuguese, they were singing a popular song of the day. No one seemed to be bothered by the singing, except a fragile-looking, elderly gentleman. After the singing continued for three or four minutes, the old man rose from his seat and shuffled down the aisle, scowling at the teenagers. When he finally arrived in front of them, he stopped, glared and wagged a bony finger at them.
As a long-time rider of public transportation in Boston, New York and Chicago, I cringed, expecting to see one of the teenagers step forward and snap that aged, wagging finger like an over-ripe carrot. Or, at the very least, to hear a generous torrent of abuse launched at this very senior senor. Instead, to my utter shock, the singing stopped immediately, the scowl faded and the old man shuffled back to his seat satisfied. Amazing.
Finger wagging, both actual and metaphoric, is a necessary part of life in a society. We don’t come into the world ready for the give-and-take necessary for the smooth interchanges of social life. We are born selfish and need to be taught how to be considerate of the other, whether a sibling who wants to play with our ball or a blind man needing help across a street. It has always been the province of the adult to instruct the young in the rules of the social game. And when the young… and the not-so-young… violate the rules with rude and selfish behaviour, adults have known instinctively that it is their duty to step in and remind offenders of the rules. Until recently.
One of the more obvious signs of societal change is seen in the relationships between adults and children. A generation or two ago in this country, adults… any adults… felt free to correct a young person using foul language in public or to break up a fight between two youngsters. The wagging finger behaviour, however, is all but disappearing. It is perceived as the province of the school marm and the local busybody. On the other hand, the gently wagged finger is actually a sign of our concern for others and for maintaining civility. Finger wagging harkens back to a time when adults were not afraid of their children. This, of course, was before the average sixteen year old was 6’ 5" tall, weighted 235 pounds and gobbled steroids instead of Life Savers.
Finger-wagging is a gentle reminder. It tells us that someone is watching. It says, "You can do better. What would your mother think of what you are doing? What does God?" It is even a mild appeal to that most discredited human emotion, shame. Contrary to much of pop psychology, shame is an important corrective device. When we violate social rules, shame is natural and helps us self-correct. The wagging finger helps us to see what we have been doing and to get ourselves back on track.
Almost 25 years ago, Richard John Neuhaus wrote a prescient book, The Naked Public Square, in which he foretold our current crisis in civil life. Where once Americans (and presumably citizens of most Western nation-states) thought that, while at the margins of their lives they had differences one from the other, as citizens they were bound together by a common set of social rules. Civic behaviour meant being considerate of our neighbour even if he is unknown to us. It also meant protecting the public square by gently monitoring one another, whether the issue is children throwing snowballs at passing cars or bigger folks fouling the air with crude, offensive language. All that, however, was before the easy virtue of tolerance began to trump all the others.
One of the enduring legacies of the 60s and 70s is a lingering "different strokes for different folks" public mentality. "Who are we to judge?" "Who are any of us to impose our values on another?" Baby Boomers, still in charge of the culture, continue to rebel against their parents even while most of them are languishing in Happy Nappy Nursing Home. When the language gets rough and the vulgarity rolls, our adults avert their eyes and turn up the volume of their iPods. Their tolerance is killing the public square.
This loss of community is real. We daily see an erosion of the connective issue that binds us one to the other. One result is that more and more of us are acquiring the gated community mentality. We spend as little time as possible in the public square and scurry back to our private enclaves. But even that is getting increasingly difficult as this rude, indifferent behaviour filters into more and more spaces. On our road, increasing numbers of drivers are jumping red lights, and there is more and more night driving with high beams ablaze. Then there is that ever-favourite, nervy guy who must pass you on the right. Our grocery stores are filled with maths-challenged shoppers who muscle in the "8-item express lane" with overflowing shopping carts. Our movie theatres are awash with cell-phoners (that newly entitled social class) shouting their film reviews to distance friends. The list goes on.
So, put aside the Don Imus racism-versus-free speech debate. Instead, reclaim our public spaces. Give a little horn toot and a gentle way of the index (to be sure!) finger to that aggressive driver who hasn’t yet mastered the turn signal. Don’t let the litterer or the movie theatre line-jumper get away without a smidgen of embarrassment. You will be doing this for all of us.
So, finger-waggers of the world, unite. We have nothing to lose but our digits.
Emeritus Professor Kevin Ryan founded the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University. He has written and edited 20 books. He has appeared recently on CBS's "This Morning", ABC's "Good Morning America", "The O’Reilly Factor", CNN and the Public Broadcasting System speaking on character education. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.